Laureate of alllife's delays, traffic etiquette and tong use

October 10, 2003

The winner of the THES -sponsored Ig Nobel literature prize has spent a career trying to prove no (attaché) case is too trivial to merit an 'informal look', says Marc Abrahams.

John W. Trinkaus has formally published 60 academic papers in which the phrase "informal look" appears in the title and others that could be classed in like manner. These and a variety of similar studies led to his being awarded the literature prize at last week's Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Trinkaus is a professor emeritus at the Zicklin School of Business, which is part of Bernard M. Baruch College, an institution that itself is a component of the City University of New York.

Here is a quick, informal look at Trinkaus' publications. They cover a dazzling range of subjects. Without exception, they appeared either in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills or in its sister publication, Psychological Reports .

Trinkaus returned to many subjects over and over again, both to replicate his findings and to delve deeper. For a full appreciation of his works, each of which is a daunting one to three pages in length, one must go to the library and read the papers in their full detail. For those who have yet to enjoy that experience, here is a rather haphazard sampling of what to expect.

Trinkaus' first published paper, a 1978 examination of the motivations of potential jurors, was the first of his signature pieces. It, like almost all of his subsequent papers, modestly claims to be an "informal look" at an under-explored subject. Even at this early stage in his career, Trinkaus had many lines of research on a wide range of topics:

- "Workers' Arrivals and Departures: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Psychological Reports , 1979. Findings suggest that rank-and-file employees do not arrive at the workplace much before the starting time and depart as quickly as possible after the quitting time. Owner-managers, conversely, arrive early and leave late. These assumptions were supported by informal observations of the arrival and departure of "luxury" cars, assumed to belong to the owner-managers, and "economy" cars, assumed to belong to the employees, at a suburban industrial parking site.

- "Stop Sign Compliance: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Psychological Reports , 1982.
[A]n informal longitudinal study was conducted in a suburban metropolitan New York community. Results suggest a decline in the frequency of driver compliance.

- "Carrying Document Cases: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Psychological Reports , 1982.
An observation of people carrying document cases leaving a railroad station during morning rush hour. Studies were made at the four major exits, one exit/ day for four days. 500 observations were made each day. About one out of five people carried such a case, and 71.8 per cent were men. Results suggest that the act of carrying a document case is a status symbol. But considerations of functional utility also have importance.

- "Arcade Video Games: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Psychological Reports , 1983.
An observation of the activity at five Pac-Man games and six Ms. Pac-Man games in a commuter railroad passenger station in New York City during the morning rush hour, lunchtime and the evening rush hour.

- "Stop Light Compliance - An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1983.

- "Stop Sign Compliance - Another Look", Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1983.

- "Human Communications: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, D. Recht, K. Shyman, Psychological Reports , 1983.
A study of whether 750 riders of low-speed self-service elevators were inclined to respond with short utterances when one of two questions was asked of them: "Is this car going up?" or "Is this car going down?" Results indicate that subjects tended to limit their communications.

- "Shopping Mall Parking Violations: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1984.

- "Stop Light Compliance: Another Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1984.
In 1985, Trinkaus' papers began to show a deeper interest in, and appreciation of, the questions of waiting, obstruction and delay:

- "Waiting Times in Physicians' Offices: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1985.

- "Yielding the Right of Way: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , vol. 61, August 1985.

- "Stop Light Compliance by Cyclists: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , December 1985.
An observation of cyclists' observance of stop lights at major traffic intersections in a large city. Results suggest that most cyclists stop only when safe passage through the intersection is not possible.

- "Husbands with Working Wives: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1986.
Examination of the employment pattern of 351 couples appearing as contestants on a TV quiz programme showed 68 per cent of employed husbands had an employed wife.

- "Stop Light Compliance by Cyclists: Another Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1988.

- "Stop Sign Compliance - A Further Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1988.
As the 1990s approached, Trinkaus addressed new and increasingly serious matters of public concern. Noise, health, recognition and queasiness characterised the next phase of his work. Exits emerged as a featured subject:

- "Opening an Attaché Case: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1989.

- "Queasiness: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, M. Chow, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1990.

- "Exiting a Building: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1990.

- "Exiting: Another Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1990.
Most of about 102 people per 201 train arrivals observed on 25 occasions chose an open vs a closed door to exit a train station.

- "The Attache Case Combination Lock: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1991.

- "Colour Preference in Sport Shoes: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1991.
Late in 1991, Trinkaus caught a portion of the world's attention with a vegetable inquiry. This did not stop him from looking at stopping.

- "Taste Preference for Brussels Sprouts: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, K. Dennis, Psychological Reports , 1991.
Results reveal about a 50 per cent dislike of the vegetable, a 40 per cent indifference, and a 10 per cent liking.

- "Stop Sign Compliance: A Follow-Up Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1993.

-  "An Informal Look at a Short-Lived Commuter Parking Lot Crowd", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1993.

- "Swimming Laps: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Psychological Reports , 1993.
An informal inquiry consisting of 105 observations suggests that, when given a choice, most swimmers opted to swim laps in shallow rather than deep water.

The years 1994 and 1995 were an especially fruitful period for Trinkaus. His April 1994 paper on baseball-type caps brought him recognition of unprecedented reach and scope:

- "Wearing Baseball-Type Caps: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Psychological Reports , 1994.
An observation of 407 people wearing baseball-type caps with the peak at the back in a downtown area and on two college campusesI About 40 per cent of subjects in the downtown area and at the inner-borough college wore the cap with the peak to the rear, while about 10 per cent of the outer-borough college subjects had the peak to the rear.

- "Cutting Corners: An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1994.
Data demonstrates that motorists are increasingly violating traffic laws by cutting through store parking areas to avoid stop signals and bypass slow-moving traffic.

- "Wearing Baseball-Type Caps: Another Look", J. Trinkaus and Maria Divino, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1996.

- "The Demise of 'Yes': An Informal Look", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1997.
A counting of positive replies to 419 questions on several TV networks showed 249 answers of "absolutely", 117 "exactly" and 53 of "yes".

In 1997, Trinkaus' first - and to date only - "final look" paper appears. And yet, his eager exploration of the minutiae of life does not slacken:

- "Stop Sign Compliance: A Final Look", J. Trinkhaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1997.

- "An Informal Look at Left-Turning Traffic", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , 1998, pp. 701-2.

- "An Informal Look at Use of Bakery Department Tongs and Tissues", J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills , vol. 87, no. 3, part 1, December 1998, pp. 801-2.
Of 108 people observed extracting rolls or pastries from displayed bulk stock in food supermarket bakery departments, about 90 per cent used their hands for item selection and withdrawal rather than the store-provided tongs.

Trinkaus' most recent publication, "Snow on Motor Vehicle Roofs: An Informal Look", appeared in the June issue of Psychological Reports . One can only speculate on what new directions Trinkaus' research will take, which of his many existing interests will be given new illumination and, most intriguingly, which of his favoured subjects might be accorded the honour of a final look.

If history is any guide, Trinkaus will continue to surprise us. We can but marvel at the tenacity of his apparently boundless, and wonderfully curious, enthusiasm.

Marc Abrahams is co-founder and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and co-founder of the Ig Nobel prize ceremony. The THES is bringing the Ig Noble show to the UK next March. Look out for more details.


The number(s) accompanying each topic correspond to the order in which Trinkaus published papers on that topic:

Baseball-type caps, manner of wearing - 62, 69

Bicyclists, 22, 28

Biorhythms - 7

Brussels sprouts, taste preference for - 54

Business students' feelings about the academy and themselves - 49

Buzzwords in political commercials - 80

Cases, attaché, opening - 36

Cases, attaché, locks - 48

Cases, document - 8, 36, 48

Cell phones, drivers' use of - 46

Chapel attendance (drop-in) - 66

Class session cancellations, students' erroneous reporting of - 86

Cookies said to be baked by Aids patients, misgivings about eating - 40

Course grades, assessing probability of attaining specific -

Diagnostic medical procedures, estimating costs of - 35

Doors, open versus closed, behaviour of people regarding - 44, 45

Elevators, communicationsin - 12

Empty beverage containers, returning - 14, 18

Expensive versus inexpensive cars, behaviour of owners of - 2

Fads of yesteryear - 16

Flea market - 3

Fruits and vegetables, business students' consumption of - 53, 54

Games, arcade - 9

Games, video - 9

Gloves, lost - 78

Healthcare, constitutionality of - 56

Husbands with working wives - 25

Integrity, the word - 73

Jurors, potential, distinction between willing and unwilling - 1

Laps, swimming - 61

Littering - 18

Lodging discount coupons - 47

Look, another - 7, 11, 19, 28, 29, 32, 38, 45, 69, 74, 81, 84

Look, final - 72

Look, follow-up - 58

Look, further - 31

Look, an informal - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26, , 30, 33, 34, 35, 40, 41, 42, 43, 46, 47, 48, 49, 51, 52, 53, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 66, 67, 68, 70, 73, 75, 76, 77, 79, 80, 82, 83, 85, 86, 87

Manners, business - 33

Medications prescribed by physicians, college students' knowledge of and/or desire to know more - 50

Mentalists, preconditioning of an audience by - 4

Motor vehicle licence - 5

Motor vehicle roofs, snow removed from - 87

Multiple-choice test questions, opinions about whether to change answers of - 52

Name recognition - 30, 38

Numbers, thinking with - 4, 41

Opinions, contemporary - 26, 37, 39

Parking areas, crowds in - 60

Parking areas, cutting through - 65

Parking areas, for handicapped - 13, 15

Parking violations - 13, 15

Physical disabilities, disclosure of - 24

Physicians' offices, waiting time in - 20

Probability, verbal characterisation of - , 32

Queasiness - 42

Railroad departure service, varying quality of - 55

Railway terminals - 9, 45, 51, 55

Sirens, use of - 34

Sport shoes, colour preference for - 51

"Stuff", personal - 78

Supermarket checkout, counting of items at - 43, 59, 84

Supermarket checkout, delays at - 70

Tongs and tissues, bakery - 76

Traffic, intersections, blocking - 82

Traffic, left-turning - 75, 81

Traffic, shopping centre parking violations - 85

Traffic, school-zone speed-limit compliance - 68, 74, 77

Traffic stop lights - 10, 19, 22, 28

Traffic stop signs - 6, 11, 31, 58, 72, 79

Traffic, yielding to - 21, 29

TV game show contestants, handicapped - 17, 83

TV game show contestants, married - 25

TV, advertising of products and the handicapped - 64

Uncooked ground beef, shoppers' perceptions about - 67

Video display terminals, perceptions of - 23

Vision tests for driver licensing, honesty of people taking - 5

Winter storms, weather persons' predictions of - 63

Work arrival time - 2

Work departure time - 2

Women driving vans - 79, 81, 82, 85

"Yes', the word - 71

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